After spending a few days in Manali, resting and soaking in the local culture, Fabien and I were primed for our 5-day trek. Both of us have done trekking in different parts of the world- I in Patagonia and he in Pakistan, so we knew what we were in for, but both of us were reluctant about the idea of a “fully” organized trek. Raja, our guide, explained to us that we would have (in addition to him): another guide who would take over half way through the trek, a cook, a horseman plus three horses to carry all of our gear. It seemed a bit ridiculous, all of this stuff just for the two of us, especially, since we were used to carrying our own gear while trekking. But…this is not something you do everyday and it did fit in to our budget so we ceded to “luxury” trekking and decided to relish in the extra attention. As luck would have it, the day before we were supposed to leave, Forest arrived fresh off the bus from Delhi, lungs full of smog and weary from the 15+ hour bus ride. We attacked him before he had a chance to put down his suitcase and gave him our best sales pitch on the the rejuvenating value of a Himalayan trek. A quick phone call to Raja (who was pedaling his bike up a hill when he answered) and we were three. Raja had also done his work and found us a fourth person, Lina, from Sweden, who was also an avid biker. Excited about the trek and finding more companions, we dined on momos (Tibetan dumplings) and turned in early.
DAY 1: HARDCORE TREKKING BEGINS. Also, Diwali (The Indian Festival of Lights, celebrating the return of Rama after 14 years in exile. It is a very important holiday in India, people decorate their homes with festive lights, they light candles in the streets and they exchange gifts and sweets.)
8:30 AM: Wake-up. Breakfast on the hotel balcony with view of temple and mountains behind.
10:00 AM: Jeep arrives to pick up us and our gear. It’s decorated with yellow flowers in celebration of Diwali. Raja tells us that we have a 5th addition to our group (Jocke, a Swedish/French guy they met the night before at the pub…)
11:00AM: Arrive at Raja’s village where we load all of the camping gear into the Jeep. Actually our guides do most of the work as we drink hot chai on the terrace and admire the quaint little village.
12:00 AM: We arrive in Naggar, the starting point of our trek. We visit an old castle and try to visit the art gallery of Nichlas Roerich (unfortunately it was closed for Diwali) but check out his work (recommended by Forest) at http://www.roerich.org/
Sometime after 12: We begin our uphill trek towards our camp for the night. The jeep has gone ahead, and all of our gear has been loaded on the horses, who will carry it to camp. We make one last stop, in a tiny village above Naggar to enjoy a cup of chai and eat our packed lunch.
The first day is actually a bit steep. None of us are really used to the altitude and we are all a bit weary from the stresses of Indian travel. We steadily climb through a mixed forest where we encounter blue pine trees and a strange “hairy” tree that looks like it has a double layer of bark and droopy branches (the Deodar cedar.) After a couple of hours we reach a pasture. Our horses are here and our guides are setting up camp. The mood is ecstatic, no signs or sounds from the city, just fresh air and beautiful surroundings. Lina and Forest rock out to Hindi music on an iPod. Fabien and I take pictures and go to meet our neighbors (there is another camp near us with a brother/sister pair from Belgium.) Our guides bring us hot chai before we unpack our things for the evening. Dinner is a feast, fresh vegetables and potatoes, rice and dal, hot soup, hot cocoa with rum and pineapple for dessert. We sit by the fire and chat and sang until we are frozen and ready to crawl into the tent for the night. This is luxury camping…
The next morning I woke up around 7. Our official wake-up call wasn’t until 8 but my bladder and my back were begging to get out of the tent. When I unzipped the door, I was rewarded with magnificent views. We were looking out on snow-capped mountain peaks (which had been covered in clouds when we arrived the night before.) The night was cold, around -2 celsius(28F) but we managed to stay warm except for our feet. The morning was paradise, though, and by 10 o’clock we had finished breakfast, packed up our stuff and it was warm enough to wear a t-shirt. The second day was also a steady uphill climb. We camped in another pasture at 3200 m (9,600ft) a little about the tree line.
Each of our days was similiar, we woke up early, left camp late, enjoyed some spectactular views, then arrived in camp early, drank chai to warm up, ate a huge delicious dinner and sat around the camp fire until it was time for bed. The 3rd day, we reached our highest point, Chanderkanee pass, at about 3800m. From the pass, we could see mountains on all sides, including Deotiba, the highest mountain in the region (6300m.)
On our 4th day, we descended and camped near a small village, Malana. Malana is famous for being the oldest democracy in the world. It’s a very unusual place, outsiders are not allowed to touch anything or anyone in the village. You have to ask permission to enter the village, and you aren’t permitted to go off of the paved walkway. The place gave us a strange feeling, it’s a mix of ancient tradition, you see many of the moving bushes (or woman carrying bushes strapped to their backs) and at the same time there are several satelite dishes in the village. I had the feeling we were on a huge movie set, and that everything was staged. It only added to the atmosphere when snow started heavily falling.
From Malana, we descended the valley. We followed a gorgeous river through a rambling forest. The descent was rocky and dusty.
In five days, we had traversed so many types of terrain. The experience was fantastic, and our sales pitch had not been in vain.